By Paul Fattig
Marine Corps veteran Jim Bowman softly barked out a command for Smokie, ordering him to stay put.
The large pooch promptly sat on his haunches as Bowman walked away across the wood floor. The dog didn’t budge.
“He’s a natural — he makes us look good,” observed Bowman, 63, a resident in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.
Bowman and his furry charge have just completed the first phase of the innovative Heeling for Heroes Project at SORCC, which began in mid-July.
With five months of training completed, Bowman — along with two fellow veterans who have been serving as dog trainers in the program — on Friday passed their leashes to other veterans who have been waiting in the wings as dog sitters. In the second phase of the program, the sitters become the primary handlers as Bowman and the others are discharged from the center.
In the program, residential veterans at SORCC are helping train homeless puppies from shelters to eventually become psychiatric service dogs. The dogs’ mission will then be to help outpatient veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder.
The three dogs who completed the first phase with their handlers on Friday were handpicked by Dahna Dow Osmus, a lead case manager and psychiatric nurse at SORCC who came up with the idea for the local program.
The dogs arrived at the center in mid-July and are now a common sight on the grounds.
Smokie, who is pushing 100 pounds, is part German shepherd with perhaps a bit of Labrador retriever mixed in.
Sam is a still-growing German shepherd mix weighing perhaps 70 pounds, while tiny Zippy appears to be a terrier-chihuahua mix.
Each pooch has its own crate in which to snooze in the veterans’ living quarters. Supplies to feed, groom, play, train and clean up after the canines are provided.
As the veterans help raise the dogs for other veterans, they relearn delayed gratification, anger management, frustration tolerance, patience and collaboration to help them overcome life’s challenges, according to Osmus, a longtime dog owner who runs the dog therapy program at SORCC.
“Smokie is our Zen dog,” Osmus said of the handsome dog who is a little more than a year old. “He is very mellow. You have to work with him to get him enthusiastic, but he is very smart.”
“And easygoing,” said Bowman, who hails from Seattle. “This training has been a lot simpler than I thought it would be. We can take him to the mess hall. He’ll lie down by the table around all the guys. He stays right there. He catches on very easily.”
Stepping in to help train the veterans was veteran dog trainer Cary Voorhees, owner of Cooperative Canines in the Applegate Valley.
On Friday, former Marine Vincent Bocchicchio, 47, Zippy’s handler, demonstrated how he uses a clicker to direct the pup into a box. When Zippy stepped inside, Bocchicchio handed him a treat.
“I’ve been with him five months now — I’m going to miss him terribly,” said Bocchicchio, who plans to return to his native Philadelphia upon being discharged from SORCC.
“He learns quickly and has a great spirit,” the veteran added. “And he is well-named — he zips around.”
Former Marine Michael Smith, a native of New York, will step forward to become Zippy’s primary handler.
“I didn’t know anything about dogs until this,” he added. “He’s a good dog. This has been a great experience for me.”
Army Veteran Evyn Balog, 42, has eagerly volunteered to serve as Zippy’s sitter.
“I love dogs,” she says. “I’m missing two of my own dogs now who are staying with my sister. It’s going to be nice to have a dog I can help take care of and one that will motivate me to take care of myself.”
Pete Penlington, 48, a former Navy Seabee from Cape Cod, Mass., has been working patiently with Sam, the youngest dog in the training.
“He’s going through those teenage years right now but he’s very intelligent, very affectionate,” Penlington said.
“One day he will make somebody a good service dog. When I walk around here with Sam, he will make a guy’s day just by sitting next to him.”
Brady Norman, 30, a former member of the Oregon Army National Guard, will take over as Sam’s trainer. The Portland native has been his sitter since late last summer.
“We’ve gotten to know each other fairly well,” he said. “Now I’ll be the full-time handler for him. It’ll be a little more responsibility, but I love being around animals.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.